Traveller's tales

Monday, July 14, 2008

Britain's 'Pearl Harbour' - Scapa Flow, 1939

On 14th of October, 1939, the Revenge-class battleship ‘Royal Oak’ was sunk with a huge loss of life, by a German U-boat. Settled in Scapa Flow, the captain and crew must have thought they were safe: Scapa Flow is surrounded by a ring of islands in the Orkneys, and is large and deep enough to hold the entire Grand Fleet, and block-ships and floating booms had been sunk to block the three minor entrances to the harbour.

Korvettenkapitän Günther Prien, one of Germany’s most outstanding U-boat commander and the first to receive the Knights Cross of the Iron Cross. Ritterkreuz des Eisernen Kreuzes, often simply Ritterkreuz, was Nazi Germany's order and recognized extreme battlefield bravery or successful military leadership during the Third Reich period. Prien earned it that fateful night.

He successfully negotiated the obstacles in his way and entered Scapa Flow on the surface. It has been said that the U-boat was caught in a passing car’s headlights but was missed, which is entirely understandable; the last thing you expect to see in your main beam is a German U-boat, particularly in that particular location, even during wartime.

The U-boat fired several torpedoes into the side of the battleship and sank it where it was docked, with the loss of 833 men, and then escaped the way it had entered, returning to Germany to give a tremendous confidence boosting propaganda coup to the Nazi regime so early in the war.

Of course, what happened in Pearl Harbour was much more devastating, but those 833 lives should not have been lost that night in Orkney, and surely would not have been, had what are now known as the Churchill Barriers, been erected before, rather than after the audacious attack.
Robert L. Fielding

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